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Politics and Youtube Ads

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Victoria Zelvin

It has been impossible to miss the effect that this year’s Presidential election has had on online advertising. A simple click to YouTube on any video that has enabled advertising will, with overwhelming odds, feature an ad of someone running for political office. These ads have engulfed any private counterparts on YouTube for the most part, essentially taking over the majority of YouTube ad space, especially in the all-important swing states, such as Virginia. I have noticed this oncoming wave of political advertising beginning as far back as early August, but as the election looms the sheer volume of political ads on YouTube have grown to staggering amounts.

Advertising on YouTube has been called the political advertising of the twenty-first century by some, admittedly mostly liberal, pundits. According to Borrell Associates, a firm that charts spending in political campaigns, the spending on political ads in the United States will hit $4.2 billion this year, which is double the amount that was spent in the last major election cycle of 2008. It was noted that most of this money will go to the medium of television ads, which has long been a favorite medium for candidates hoping for political office, but this year there had been a heavy emphasis on online advertising. Current President (and re-election hopeful) Barack Obama showed his fellow candidates the power of the internet by turning his campaign to social media, advertising heavily online on popular social networking websites. This year it’s the video giant YouTube, owned by Google, that has been receiving a lot of attention from political candidates.

In addition, the push by Google to advertise the YouTube service of In-Stream ads for advertising of any kind has brought it the attention of political candidates, lobbying groups and activists alike. Google has responded to these groups, including paragraphs of information about the strength of advertising politically on YouTube. Google claims that YouTube In-Stream ads “straddle that line between digital and TV advertising” as well as allowing campaigns to target locations, such as a specific state or district, in addition to content categories on YouTube. This allows for candidates (and regular private marketers looking to sell a product) to target their message more specifically than television. Traditionally, campaigns buy ad space on certain channels during peak hours, but the most specific that they can get is advertising during a particular show. YouTube is a lot more individualized by nature, typically focusing on more streamlined and shorter content, which allows candidates more freedom to get as specific about their message as they would like to be.

Effective political campaigning has long been about the marketing mix, as success will not come from just one platform alone. Campaigns have to measure where they spend their money, look at the potential demographics reached and make informed decisions based upon these factors. Thus far the ads before YouTube videos have been little more than repetitive “TV spot” type of ads, often with TV spots appearing online identical to their television counterpart. The effectiveness will be see as this type of political advertising matures and develops, but as of right now the In-Stream ad option on YouTube has been used extensively by political candidates, from the presidential election to local representatives.

It’s no stretch to speculate that in the future advertising online will be as critical as the staple of television advertising, and perhaps even more so. Borrell Associates also notes that more and more voters are going online to do research, with estimated numbers as high as 68% of US going online to research before they vote, so the online platform has become more critical than ever to elections.

As of right now, however, I can say personally I have encountered far more ads bearing the emblem of groups working on behalf of Obama than Romney. Keeping with his tech-savvy trend of 2008, Obama seems to have focused a good deal more effort on those constituents who frequent YouTube just by sheer volume alone. The content of the advertising has been less informative and more inflammatory, at least in my experience, so suffice it to say that I have tuned most of it out. YouTube’s In-Stream ad service can be an effective way of reaching voters, yes, but it needs to mature out of being a place to simply copy and paste already pre-made TV spots and into an actual platform that exploits the tools YouTube has to offer.